Saturday, January 14, 2012

Rape, False accusations and a Broken Justice system

Bristol, UK-based blogger Sianushka (of blog "Sian and Crooked Ribs") has written an informative and thoughtful post on sexual violence and rape, in conjunction with the matter of false accusations, a concern that is brought up invariably in any discussion about the former.

Sianushka makes an important point:
It seems to me that now whenever I write about rape and sexual violence, or speak about it, or see or hear any other conversation about it, we are almost immediately confronted with a comment that goes something like this:
'Of course, rape is awful. But let's not forget - a false accusation of rape can ruin a man's life'.

I believe that this response to conversations around rape is not only unhelpful, but completely skews our perceptions about rape and sexual violence. Firstly, because it suggests that false accusations are as common as rape (they're not. Reports differ but on average there are 90,000 rapes in the UK each year according to the Home Office. Only 15% of those rapes will be reported based on 6 year average from the BCS, and between 1-5% of accusations are false.) ( And it suggests that the impact of a false accusation is worse than rape.
Comparison of the impacts of these two different criminal acts, rape and false accusation, is always problem-ridden. Therefore, making or entertaining such a suggestion would be engaging in false equivalences. Rape is a traumatic violation that may, after a single occurrence, destroy a victim's life, leaving lasting physical and/or psychological impact, and it is awfully naive and disingenuous to assume that rape accusations are brought forth lightly or whimsically. A false accusation, on the other hand, may not stand up to legal scrutiny and fall away, but it still has the potential to devastate a person or a family. The human cost of these two crimes may be similar, but the magnitudes are very different.

Sianushka sums up why this oft-done conflation of the impacts of rape and false accusation is problematic.
This response to conversations about violence against women and girls is now so common that it is having a profound impact on the way our media and politicians talk about and approach issues of sexual violence. In 2010, the coalition government tried to pass a law that would give anonymity to those accused of rape, and only those accused of rape. This proposal was completely based on the idea that false accusations could ruin a man's life and was influenced by the perception that false accusations are common and the 'norm' - an assertion based on a belief that more often than not, women lie about rape. The proposal was defeated, but it showed starkly how the belief that women lie is so prevalent and accepted. It was used to suggest a law that would have likely dissuaded women from reporting rape, and could reduce the conviction rate even further from the paltry 6.5% it already is (from incident to conviction).
And that would have been a real pity. Any way one looks at it, performance of the justice system doesn't inspire much confidence for the prevention of sexual violence and abuse. Sianushka argues further:
I base this assertion on the fact that by naming an accused rapist such as John Worboys, his other victims are more likely or able to come forward. I also base it on the fact that if you are working from a base line that women are likely to be lying, then you are hardly empowering women to come forward and talk to you about what has happened to them.
It is a great post; go read it. I found much to agree with. Rape and sexual violence are despicable crimes. I have commented earlier on how sexual violence seems to be rampant in India, and wondered about some possible causes. I share Sianushka's outrage.

However, one matter that gave me a pause was her reference en passim to 1-5% of false accusations of rape. One commenter asked how they had established it was false. My conflicting thought was if the fate of these 1-5% of falsely accused persons mattered or not, whether they should be considered collateral damage to enforcing a justice system that would bring succor to countless victims of sexual violence. I was reminded of the famous words of English jurist William Blackstone, "Better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer." But I don't know if Mr. Blackstone (1753-1765) ever considered, at that time, the tremendous human cost to the victims of sexual violence, who are historically mostly women.

Nonetheless, any way I looked at it, it seems to me that such enumerations would greatly depend on the efficiency, wisdom and goodwill of the investigative agencies and the legal systems, i.e. the justice system. (I left a comment after the post; I decided to highlight the issue in this blog, too.)

Rape is a violent act and serious offence. The justice system should be able to punish the guilty, right? As Sianushka points out, it doesn't always happen that way:
...let's not forget that some men who are accused of rape or assualt (or even found guilty!) still manage to carry on with their lives, careers, stardom reputation intact (and enhanced). Chris Brown, Tyson, Polanski, DSK, Assange anyone?
Not to mention, India's very own Shiney Ahuja, an actor who was sentenced for raping the domestic help, but is currently out on bail.

Making false accusations is also criminal. If even 1% of men are falsely accused, the justice system should be able to prevent an undue punishment to the not-guilty, right?

Nuh-uh. It happens everywhere, and India, it seems, is certainly not an exception. Men, falsely accused on rape for various, including trivial, reasons, have been known to serve prison sentences in India. Consider this chilling news story from a week back, about a Canadian family of Punjabi Sikh origin - who had ordered a hit on their own daughter, for her 'crime' of falling in love and marrying beneath her station. The murder was committed in 2000 in India; the husband was left to die, but didn't. The people involved in that crime, including an influential local businessman and a former police official, were brought to justice in 2005. However, that was not the end of the hapless husband's ordeal. In 2004, the businessman, in collusion with his powerful associates, paid a woman, his domestic help, to falsely accuse the husband of rape, and he was found guilty and was incarcerated, awaiting trial!. These facts emerged when, very recently, the members of the Canadian family were arrested.

I understand that it is impossible for me to say whether the husband was indeed guilty of raping the housemaid or not, but I can admit that the circumstances and the facts of the case certainly merit suspicion.

A broken justice system is unable to offer any protection to any of the victims, of rape or of false accusations. However, false accusations only serve to take away from the seriousness of the crime of rape, and hinder honest effort to curb (hopefully, stamp out) this barbaric act. We should urge our politicians and elected officials to work consistently towards strengthening the justice system, both the investigative and the judicial arms, so that blatant efforts to pervert the system in any way are rendered ineffective.

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